It’s been about a year since I looked at how the aesthetics of Steven Universe reinforce its deeper themes of togetherness and harmony, and on a personal note, I’ve been struggling with some existential crises and I could use a dose of “letting go” for a bit of time. While I was down, I saw some clips of Rick & Morty that made me feel a bit better, mostly. So today, I wanted to do another analysis of aesthetics in a show, this time focusing on Rick & Morty and themes of existential nihilism.
According to author Donald A. Crosby, “The existential nihilist judges human existence to be pointless and absurd. It leads nowhere and adds up to nothing. It is entirely gratuitous, in the sense that there is no justification for life, but also no reason not to live.” This describes our protagonist Rick and his outlook on the universe pretty succinctly. I wouldn’t say that Rick & Morty as a show is pointless; it very much has a point and a message, but that message, while funny and heartwarming, is that our world doesn’t have some greater purpose. The message does not imply that we shouldn’t try to make huge achievements—Rick is an accomplished inventor—but it says that we should just enjoy the ride.
In the world of Rick & Morty, the message is that nothing really matters, but we still should enjoy life for what it is. Now, this is a pretty simple message and characters outright say it sometimes, and, like Steven Universe, the show’s aesthetic reiterates it. Beginning with the presentation, the show utilizes a cold open. The cartoon jumps directly into the content. If it is your first time watching Rick & Morty, you pretty much don’t get any context into its premise—the show is just on. While many shows contain cold opens, I believe it holds extra meaning here. What is Rick & Morty about? Not being told within the first few minutes doesn’t affect your enjoyment of it. Once we arrive at the theme/intro sequence, things become more meaningless before we learn more. The intro starts by showing us a disembodied eye and hand, an hour glass, and “3+3=6”—four things which have no purpose other than demonstrating that the show is strange and “science-fictiony”. We are then treated to a few scenes with no context, some from existing episodes, some not, culminating in a chase sequence with Cthulu which has never happened. Each scene shows some sort of danger to Rick, Morty, and friends, but we see no resolution to them in the sequence. If they aren’t actually in the show, then we never see the consequences. The feeling I get from this is that it doesn’t matter what happened: we know the characters are fine but we understand that risk is present. Again, “It leads nowhere and adds up to nothing.”
And these feelings are interwoven in every interaction and audiovisual cue the show holds. One of the first things viewers will notice is the freeform, casual sounding speech cadence most characters use. At least with Rick and Morty themselves, they stutter, pause, burp, and drag out words when they talk. It makes their conversations sound more natural and realistic despite the fantastical events occurring around them. Compared to the highly sterilized and edited cadence in most media, which has more of a flow, Rick & Morty almost sounds careless—as if it doesn’t matter how it sounds. The meaningless audio is extended in an episode in which there is a galactic American Idol type competition. Rick and Morty perform two songs, and in each of them, the lyrics don’t have any real meaning and are delivered in a flatter and less enthusiastic fashion than the normal voice acting. During other episodes, Rick uses a special cable box to watch interdimensional television. Each of the fake shows play like improv skits which were animated. Again, given the production, we know that effort was put in, but it is supposed to feel like there wasn’t to give that feel of “not caring”. It continues to push the ideal of nihilism: polish and details are absurd and gratuitous.
The last major aesthetic push for nihilism is the art direction. Rick and Morty encounter many aliens and alternate reality creatures. Given the scope of this premise, they must meet countless styles of organisms. Simply encountering not-really-humans wouldn’t be enough. So while some of the aliens are humanoid or bipedal, many are drawn with odd features, seemingly with no purpose. Often, the designs are just setups for genital jokes, which is fairly lowbrow, sure, but many of these depictions look like somebody just made something up on the fly. Sometimes they just look like something an immature kid came up with. It certainly gives the feeling of pointlessness, and that they are there “just because”.
Overall, Rick & Morty does an excellent job of using aesthetic and style to drive home a central theme. Here, it’s the feeling that the world is meaningless—nothing happens for any specific reason, so we should just enjoy it. Both Rick and Morty have struggles and angst, but they also have many laughs, enjoy the splendor of the universe, and show that they care about each other. The fact that sometimes they go on adventures just for the sake of it, try to make money, or just go to an alternate dimension for some ice cream in the face of the pointlessness of the world is the epitome of “just enjoy it”. As I said with my piece on Steven Universe, I think more media could stand to use their internal aesthetic and style to enhance points. With the recent discussions about the game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, people are concerned about properties saying one thing, but not backing it up with its substance. This downplays any message it has and lowers the overall impact of the game. Rick & Morty outright has the line “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV”, and with the aesthetic to back that up, it makes me feel a bit better about just enjoying each day.